An All Too Familiar Affair
The 20th anniversary of the fatwa against Rushdie has been publicly debated by almost the same chorus of voices, now a little older and with some welcome recantations, that was heard then.
Dissenting women's voices are little in evidence although it is women who are the first to feel the chill of religious fundamentalism when their precarious freedoms begin to atrophy. This does not mean that these voices do not exist, just that their position can be inconvenient for the dominant narratives driving the public debate.
Long before the wider society woke up to the problem of religious extremism in its midst, perhaps from the mid-80s onwards, women's groups like Southall Black Sisters (SBS) were becoming aware of the growing religious restrictions on the women they were seeing. Militant Khalistanis fighting for an independent theocratic Punjab in India were making their presence felt in Southall and life was becoming more difficult as a result for young women on the streets.
So when the Rushdie affair broke, SBS realised that this was the not just an isolated case of religious fervour. They organised a meeting of white and black feminists from a range of political traditions, ethnic and religious backgrounds which culminated in the founding of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) in 1989.
The group felt strongly about the need to tackle the resurgence of fundamentalism in all religions worldwide, partly to challenge the demonisation of Islam by the state and the liberal intelligentsia and partly to develop an effective strategy to fight reactionary religious forces in all our communities. WAF had its moment in the limelight because the media were caught up in a feeding frenzy and were keen to cover the Rushdie affair from every possible angle. Other campaigns against Hindu, Catholic and Jewish fundamentalism did not get the same level of publicity. As a result it became identified with being anti-Islamic by the anti-racist lobby who saw it as feeding into Islamophobia, exactly the opposite of what WAF wanted to achieve.
The contradictions arising from WAF's position of resisting racism, sexism and religious fundamentalism were perfectly demonstrated by the WAF picket outside parliament in 1989 – approximately 50 women were marooned between a march of young Asian men calling for a ban on The Satanic Verses and National Front (NF) supporters. Instead of tackling the NF, the Asian men verbally and physically attacked WAF which then had to rely on the police for protection whereas previously WAF members would have been marching alongside their Asian "brothers" against police and state racism!
The fallout from the Rushdie affair was the widespread growth of religious identities at the expense of racial and gender identities. Secular anti-racists began to declaim, even reclaim, their Muslim identity. Muslim women increasingly adopted the hijab as a symbol of pride in their religious identity, not recognising or even accepting the fact that it set women back by placing the onus on women's safety on their modest dress and behaviour rather than male aggression. The left displayed a reluctance to challenge reactionary forces within our communities because it might be seen as racist.
The state's response has been divided to say the least: the "fighting extremism" agenda after 7/7 has seen the active wooing of so-called "moderates" (often linked to extremist organisations overseas) who may be moderate on the question of public order but certainly not on the question of women. This has led, for instance, to an explosion of religious schools and the growing acceptance that some form of sharia law should be accommodated within the legal system. However, last week it emerged from a leaked counterterrorism draft strategy that anyone who promotes sharia law could be classed as extremist! At the same time police officers report that the government's terror agenda is hampering their work on forced marriage because of the government's reluctance to alienate community leaders.
Pragna Patel, a founder member of WAF, reflects on how things have changed since then: "Little did we know how far the state would go towards appeasing demands by religionists and conceding essential public spaces which is problematic for women and an immensely worrying development."
WAF is needed now more than ever before.
21 February 2009